“Where is your family from?” they ask.
“Japan,” I reply.
“Right, but where in Japan?” they persist.
I let out a mental sigh trying to figure out the best way to describe the geography of Japan, knowing that nine times out of ten they will have know idea where I’m talking about.
“They’re from Okayama…it’s a small town in between Osaka and Hiroshima,” I gamely try to explain, “and the town is known for its Kibidango [mochi], the setting of the fable ‘Momotaro’ [peach boy], its honey sweet white peaches, and grapes bigger than my eyeballs.”
It was clear that I lost them at “Okayama”.
This is the best I can do in describing where my parents and thus, where I come from. Okayama is approximately 225 miles west of Osaka along the Seto Inland Sea. A little over 300 square miles in size, the population is a mere 700,000 [give or take]. A tourist lost in this area would be stared at, even by me, with the one thought running through the local’s minds, “What the heck is the gaijin [foreigner] doing here?? Must be lost…”
Personally, the one thing that keeps me coming back to Okayama, aside from all my fond childhood memories, is my family. Kind, funny, and welcoming are the best ways to describe them. Other families mention how great my family is. It’s true – they bent over backward when we came into town – from Tokyo all the way down to Okayama – “all hands on deck” was the motto.
My summers in Japan were filled with idyllic days roaming around the countryside, slipping and nearly drowning in rice paddies, and best of all, playing with my cousins while trying my best to communicate in my very broken Japanese in a way that only kids seemed to know how to do. I watched my youngest nephew take to his second cousins in much the same manner, playing in the playground 50 yards from my Ojiisan’s [grandfather] home. He had no idea what they were saying, they had no idea what he was saying, but somehow they managed to have fun together…
Walking through Shinpon Village, located in Soja City where my mom grew up, I couldn’t believe the changes that I saw. Even, paved roads; beautified paths heavy with hydrangeas and alstromerias; cleaned up streams; and rebuilt retaining walls. But the biggest change was my Ojiichan’s roof that used to beckon me home. I used to anticipate seeing my Ojiichan’s bright blue tiled roof as soon as we entered the valley. Instead I was devastated by the drab grey tiles that greeted me. I managed to find some of the roof pieces underneath the house.
This is what I used to see:
I recall my summer of being a young, know it all teen “trapped” in the country. All I wanted to do was go shopping, be in the city out of the country and the rice fields. This time, as a much older version of that self, all I wished for was one more day to walk around here:
and to stare at the rice paddies that was almost my undoing until my mom pulled me up and out
Or hang out at the top of the small water fall that we used to fish and play in [there was never that much water when we were growing up…or hydrangeas for that matter]:
Mostly, it would’ve been nice to just relax in the rock garden that my Ojiichan created that used to be filled with Matsu [Pine trees]. Ojiichan brought these huge rocks down from the mountains when he was over 65 years old. I once asked him how he brought it down and he slapped his biceps twice and said, “chikara” or “strength”. I looked at him skeptically. He was a very, very slight man. He proved his point by reaching over to my unsuspecting cousin, pinching her slowly with his vice-like grip until she started howling in pain. Thankful that he didn’t pinch ME, the granddaughter he only saw a handful of times, I gave him the “A-OK” sign with a nod of acknowledgment.
This is the Japan that I associate most with. I don’t have the same type of city experiences that all the chic travelers to Japan have. This is where I come from and where I love to come back to. Thanks for visiting with me.